*This is the Fantasy novel I’m posting here for free, one chapter every Friday. If your conscience troubles you getting something for free, do hit the donate button on the right side. Anyone donating more than $6 will get a non-drm electronic copy of Witchfinder in its final version, when it’s published.
There is a compilation of previous chapters here all in one big lump, which makes it easier to read and I will compile each new chapter there, a week after I post. When the novel is completed and about to be edited the compilation page will probably be deleted.
Oh, this is in pre-arc format, meaning you’ll find the occasional spelling mistake and sentence that makes no sense. It’s not exactly first draft, but it’s not at the level I’d send to a publisher, yet. *
For previous chapters, look here: https://accordingtohoyt.com/witchfinder/
*Author’s note — I promised I wouldn’t let readers comments influence me when writing this. But of course, some level of influence is impossible to avoid. And “You deflowered the family goat” — courtesy of
Pam Uphoff Beth (who freely admits to it!) — just proved impossible not to steal. My apologies.*
For My Lady Fair
The Duke took off running towards the field, and there was very little that Nell could do but follow him. She had, of course, understood that Gabriel Pen had just ported in from whatever trouble the cards might have indicated – and she could not even imagine what represented him – and that he had someone else with him. A necromancer.
The idea made her flesh crawl – an expression she’d heard before but never actually experienced. Only now she had something to associate with necromancy: Antoine’s dead corpse walking. She remembered the blank look in his eyes, the feel that whatever and whoever Antoine had been was no longer there. Now, there was just a thing: an empty shell.
That in itself had always made her feel odd, the few times she had witnessed death – mostly of animals – but the idea that the dead meat should walk, move as if of its own volition was obscene.
Even now, the memory made her feel like her throat closed in disgust, and her flesh tried to crawl away beneath her skin. She took deep breaths of the cool morning air, scented with the familiar smells of the farm, and ran as fast as she could. If there were a necromancer come to the farm, she must defend the farm – and grandma – from him. More important, if there were a necromancer come to the farm was it the one who had been responsible for re-animating Antoine?
If so, she would have something to say to him. She was beginning to think, in light of what her true origins were likely to be, that she’d fallen in a neatly set trap, and that Antoine was part of it, but one way or another, and whatever he might have been, he didn’t deserve what had been done to him. No one did.
She arrived in the field behind Seraphim. Impossible not to. His legs were much longer than hers and besides, she’d been accustomed for her time in Avalon, to be restricted in her ability to run anywhere.
When she approached the group, Seraphim Ainsling was yelling something. The shock when she understood his words, and also what he was doing, was almost too great to permit her to react rationally.
Seraphim Ainsling, the proper Duke of Darkwater, of whom much was said, but not that he had fishmonger or carter ancestry, was screaming at the top of his lungs at the two men – one of whom was not only completely oblivious to him, but seemed to be attempting to dig to China with his bare hands, and burrow face-first into the hole.
Worse, the one standing was the Duke’s valet, and, Nell presumed, the Duke’s brother and – from what she’d seen of them – one of his closest friends, but the Duke was holding him roughly by the arm and shaking him.
What came at her, shouted at the top of the Duke’s voice, was almost impossible to understand so loud and rapid it was, “– I should wash my hands of you. Are you out of your senses to be approaching this creature and to fall into his clutches once more?”
“Now, Duke,” Gabriel Penn said, very mildly, but in a tone of worried distraction. He made as though to take a step sideways to pull his companion out of the dirt, or perhaps to succor him, but Seraphim held him fast.
“No, don’t you go trying to cajole me. You know what coils this creature embroiled you into and you know he can only bring you dishonor and grief. Even if he captured you, by dishonorable means, you should know–”
Gabriel Penn’s eyes flashed with a look not unlike Seraphim’s own when animated with near-uncontrollable fury, and for a moment he showed his teeth, pressed close together. Nell thought he was about to slug the Duke, and for just a second, without thinking, moved to step between them. Then she checked. Even on Earth, stepping between two men about to engage in a slugging match was perfectly stupid. But, stepping between two men from Avalon about to engage in a slugging match might be crazier. Not only would they slug it out around or over her, but they would also hold each other responsible for causing her to step in. Their rules of chivalry were complicated, but that one was obvious.
As she checked, Gabriel reached out and got hold of both of the duke’s arms above the elbow, “Your Grace, you bonehead, listen to me: Marlon Elfborn did not capture me. I went to him to ask for help when I had nowhere else to go.”
“Well,” Seraphim said, struggling to pull his arms away from his brother’s gripping fingers. “that only proves you’re not competent to run your own affairs. Further more–”
“Yes, I know, further more he interrupted my education, raised the dead and deflowered the family goat. Give over Seraphim, you fool, do. Stop your vendetta and listen to me.”
“He deflowered what?” Seraphim said, stopping mid shout and frowning.
A dark red blush climbed Gabriel’s cheeks. His eyes darted at Nell, and he actually attempted to bow, which went to show that the training of Avalon men was quite past rationality or sanity even. “I beg your pardon Miss Felix, I–”
“Not Miss Felix,” Seraphim bellowed. “Not Miss Felix. She is the princess royale.”
“Oh, dear,” Gabriel said, and his face looked as though someone had lit a candle inside his skull, and he looked like he would presently join his friend in digging in the dirt.
Which finally triggered Nell’s reaction. She couldn’t do anything about the Darkwater brothers. She had a strong feeling whatever had been happening here had been going on for a long while – possibly since their births – and would go on yet longer. But right now, at this moment, there was a creature who was suffering from either insanity or some compulsion, and she must help him.
She looked at the digging man with her mage vision, and saw… Oh, dear. Earth was near-lethal for a creature like Seraphim, even, full of magical power and not hardened from birth to the proximity of what they called cold iron, and which was in fact more what Earth would call technology. But this creature, the red-headed man scrabbling at the dirt, was at least three quarts magical, probably with fairyland blood – no, had to be. Gabriel had called him Elfborn – but with some other magical blood mixed in as well.
And while, unlike Seraphim when he’d been transported here, he was not ill, and while he should be able to defend himself from the hostile surroundings, he seemed to have been caught by surprise.
He hadn’t intended to teleport here, Nell guessed, and therefore hadn’t shielded himself from the surrounding influence in time. She would guess Gabriel Penn had had a second longer to shield, and that made all the difference.
Elfborn’s unshielded magic was under attack on all sides, much like a glob of flesh thrown into strong acid.
Acting instinctively, she threw a protection veil over him. Not a spell. A spell wouldn’t work for something like this, because it was not alive and would just get corroded along with everything else. The only protection to extend in this case was a veil of magic, an extension of Nell’s own magic, fortunately hardened the conditions of Earth.
It worked, to an extent. It stopped the creature’s magic dissolving and disintegrating. It wouldn’t allow it to regenerate, because she couldn’t build a thick enough wall between it and Earth. Particularly not since – as the effect hit a second later – to be so linked with him meant that she could feel his pain too. It was somewhere between a migraine and a whole-body toothache. She gritted her teeth against it, and turned to the two men, who had stopped arguing and were looking at her, as though she’d just grown a second head.
Gabriel recovered first. “Thank you,” he said. He let go of Darkwater’s arms, and like a total idiot, attempted to throw a veil of his own over hers.
“No,” she told him, using whatever concentration she could spare away from her task to magically block his attempt. “You’re half-elf yourself and you’re not used to Earth. If you try that, we’ll have you both in the same condition.”
“Well, if you think–” Seraphim Ainsling said, to Gabriel. She could spare them no look, but something must have passed between them, some wordless argument, because she heard the duke draw a deep breath, and then she felt his power, like barrier, interpose itself not just between hers and the influence of Earth’s anti-magic, but between Elfborn’s and her own.
The pain lessened, receding a pace, and Elfborn’s magic pulsed, once, and reorganized into a coherent, if still fainter than it should be. He stopped digging and fell back on his haunches, looking dazed. Which, apparently, gave the other two men an opportunity to start screaming at each other again.
“What in he– Hades do you mean the family goat?” Seraphim started, at the same time that Gabriel said, at the top his voice, “You said she is the princess royale?”
“Please, don’t start screaming,” Nell said, thinking that hot tempers must run in the family. which made perfect sense, as both the men seemed over-controlled, which they would be, if they knew they were likely to lose control completely, once they unbent. “The Duke of Darkwater does believe that I am the princess royale of Avalon, Mr. Penn. I’m not quite sure why myself, except a medallion and some… some other indications, but he says I look like the Queen. And, your Grace, I presume Mr. Penn said what he did in an effort to derail you so that we could attend to Mr. Elfborn. Is that so?”
Gabriel Penn opened his mouth as though to say something. He reddened dark again, and shot his brother a glowering look. “Yes. Pardon me, Seraphim, but you– Oh, never mind. We must get Marlon’s magic stable so he can survive here. Miss– Er… Your highness, do you chance to know where there are any standing stones hereabouts.”
“In the United States?” She saw his blank look too late. “The equivalent of your American colonies, sir. We have no standing stones.”
“Oh. But we–”
“It’s a different world,” Seraphim said, testily, and she thought that his tone was as much the result of whatever animosity he had towards Elfborne, and the not-quite-pain-and-worse-than-any-headache behind the eyes that protecting the man’s magic caused. “They don’t have openings to fairyland here. Which, I suspect, is what makes this a safe world for all of us right now, because I suspect, pardon me, Gabriel, that your magical kin’s stinking court politics are at the center of this mess.
“Yes, I suspect so too,” Gabriel Penn said, and turned to Nell. “And this is why I wondered if you had something like standing stones. They would have provided a shield for him, even if they’re not connected to fairyland. They are places of refuge for magical creatures caught in this land, and they would allow him to recover. He was trying to dig in the dirt, because that would be protection of a kind.”
Nell sighed. “So, an underground room would help?”
“Somewhat,” Gabriel said.
“Very well. The house was built in the time of coal heating. There is a basement with an outside entrance. There is nothing in it now, but I used to play in it as a girl. If you’ll follow me,”
She led them around the house to the entrance. This part of the basement, which had once contained a coal furnace, now dismantled, had been cleaned out and outfitted as her own private refuge when she was a little girl. She’d always liked it, and liked hiding there to read. Now she wondered if it was because it had afforded her own magic a respite from hostile forces.
Whatever had driven her to it, her grandmother had aided and abetted it. The little refuge had not only bookcases, a small table and a microwave, but also a loveseat draped over with a colorful shawl that hid the tears in the upholstery. It also had a tiny powder room attached. It had been installed late enough – after Nell had claimed it – that Nell knew it had plastic piping. Just as well. Sometimes too much metal was a problem for magic in the literal sense.
As soon as she closed the door to the outside, she felt the pressure against her shield over Elfborn abate. It was like coming in from a raging storm to a place of calm. Seraphim must have felt it too, because she saw his features sag in relief.
Gabriel Penn had helped Elfborne to the loveseat and dropped him into it, and the man’s eyes were returning to some semblance of understanding. He looked at Seraphim, and his eyes widened. Then he looked at Nell and they widened further.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, his voice creaking. “I understand one or the other of you will wish to kill me. Might I–” he looked at his dirt-covered hands. “Be allowed to rinse the dirt from my hands and face, first.”
“Oh, Marlon,” Gabriel said. “Stop the cheap tragedy. Seraphim isn’t going to kill you and I can’t imagine why Miss– why her– why the lady would.”
“Will they not?” Elfborne said, something like the light of battle and a rueful look in his eyes. “You only think that because you don’t know the half of it.”